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Tanzania: LGBT citizens are relegated to the shadows

By Mike MacDonald

Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently released a report titled “Treat Us Like Human Beings: Discrimination against sex workers, sexual and gender minorities, and people who use drugs in Tanzania.” The document compiled over 250 interviews, gathered over the past year.

Researcher Neela Ghoshal led a press conference on the document in mid-June, in a cramped room at the Holiday Inn, Dar es Salaam, filled to capacity with reporters and aid workers.

I’ve been to many press conferences in this country, but this was one of the first times I’ve seen so many reporters so eager to raise their hands.

And yet, there seemed to be just one question:

“How can I possibly go back to my editor and explain this document?”

Attitudes towards LGBT rights are progressing in the West, as demonstrated by last week’s U.S. supreme court rulings, but that progress hasn’t spread to Tanzania.

In Tanzania, LGBT community members are frequently subjected to rape and torture, often by the very people who should be protecting them: police officers, according to HRW. Access to health care is spotty, and some providers flat-out refuse to treat sexual minorities. Worse, there’s little discussion of the problem; even after a concerted push to get the paper I work for to run stories (or even just a story) on the report, nothing was ever published.

The only place you can discuss the problem of how Tanzania treats this portion of its citizenry is outside of Tanzania.

Perhaps that’s because, in Tanzania, LGBT citizens, drug users, and sex workers are all tarred with one brush: they’re all seen as criminals, and they’re all relegated to the shadows.

Sodomy is still criminalized. If caught, a man can face a penalty of 30 years to life in prison, one of the most severe punishments for same-sex relations in the world.

Lending public support to sexual minorities—criminals in the eyes of the law—isn’t tolerated.

As I learned with my article-that-wasn’t, it’s even repressed.

In short, the anti-gay mentality permeates the society, with even some of the most progressive thinkers toeing the line.

In late April, the venerable Legal and Human Rights Centre published their 2012 human rights report. In 470 pages, the only reference to LGBT human rights abuses was to call homosexuality "unacceptable
behaviour (page 400)."

In late May, parliament was twice postponed when a parliamentarian, Mr Ezekiah Wenje (Chadema), accused the Civic United Front (CUF) of showing Western-style support for homosexuality.

“Mr Deputy Speaker, page 8 of this speech is abusive …it implies CUF is a party that supports same-sex marriage, lesbianism and homosexuality. This is a fallacy, brainless, idiotic ...and we want
him to apologise and withdraw those words,” Mr Salum (CUF) told the House.

But there’s a huge logical disconnect here. Tanzanians I’ve spoken with claim that supporting LGBT rights isn't part of their culture. However, in every other way I’ve seen, Tanzania is an extremely warm
and welcoming culture. The idea of them physically abusing, or raping, or withholding medical treatment from anyone, for any reason, boggles the mind.

Some claim that supporting sexual minorities is simply a Western concept, not to be found in East Africa. But in neighbouring countries such as Rwanda, Congo, and Mozambique, no law exists against same-sex

In the meantime, while Tanzania waits for a paradigm shift, countless victims of human rights abuses continue to suffer in strictly-enforced silence.


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